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Sequoyah – Inventor of the Cherokee Script (wikipedia.org)
68 points by Bootvis on Dec 8, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 17 comments

Even more fascinating is that the Cherokee syllabary may have been the foundation for the West African tribe Vai's syllabary, one of few scripts invented in Africa. When freedmen went to Liberia, or rather what would become Liberia, some Cherokees opted to join. One of them became a chief.


Edit: See also https://whyafricanlanguages.org/2019/01/28/sequoyahs-ghost-a...

I've always loved this story. It's a great demonstration of how incredibly difficult inventions become easier just by knowing they're possible. Other than once in the fertile crescent (arguably once soon after by Egypt), once in China and once in Mesoamerica people haven't successfully invented writing.

But after knowing writing was possible it just took a single determined individual, such as Sequoyah, to create a writing system for a language previously only spoken.

"It's a great demonstration of how incredibly difficult inventions become easier just by knowing they're possible."

See also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egg_of_Columbus

Wasnt there a guy who invented the first GUI, programming language and I forgot what else and when someone asked him he just said "I didnt know it was hard."


"When asked, “How could you possibly have done the first interactive graphics program, the first non-procedural programming language, the first object oriented software system, all in one year?” Ivan replied: “Well, I didn’t know it was hard.” (Alan Kay, Doing with Images Makes Symbols, 1987)"


Ah I was going to guess it might of been Alan Kay, but I wasn't too sure. Thanks for confirming! I read it as a comment a while back here on HN and forgot to bookmark it.

It wasn't Alan Kay, it was Ivan Sutherland who was a father of computer graphics.

According to the link above, it was a fellow named Ivan Sutherland.

Whoops I read this wrong, my mistake, thanks for the clarification.

For sure! I just came across the interesting story of Marvin Pipkin, who, upon starting a job at General Electric, was given a "fool's errand" by his new team, as a practical joke:

He was tasked with finding a way of frosting light bulbs from the inside, without making them too brittle. Not being aware his assignment was a type of joke, he went about the task as if it was something that could be done and had been done before. The first electric light bulb frosted on the inside with sufficient strength for ordinary handling that could be sold to the public was invented by Pipkin in 1925.


That's interesting. As a glassblower I don't understand why that ever would have been a difficulty. I suppose they were trying to etch the glass previously, rather than to apply a coating.

Huh, it turns out his solution was acid etching the inside of the bulb, which was what I assumed they tried that didn't work.

That is awesome! That's what I took away from that story. Nothing is impossible, only if you believe it is. Might be hard problem with limitations, but you could work it.

He knew more than just that writing was possible. He also knew how writing worked and he had the idea of using characters to correspond to phenomes. It's closer to building a device once you know how it works than it is to inventing something once you know that it's possible.

> He also knew how writing worked and he had the idea of using characters to correspond to phenomes.

Actually, he didn't. He knew that the Americans had a writing system that was sparse in its use of characters, and that it was capable of reflecting all text, but he didn't know any of the actual principles. This is why he created a syllabary (each character is roughly a syllable [1]) instead of an alphabet (each character is a phoneme). He also had access to an English-language Bible, although he couldn't read it--this is why Cherokee has several characters that look like Latin letters but have completely different pronunciation (ᏣᎳᎩ is pronounced "tsalagi").

The creation of the syllabary also corroborates the general history of scripts: most scripts start out as logographic, morph into a rebus phase (homophonic punning--using a picture of an eye to represent "I" because they sound the same), and then transition into a syllabary. In the development of Egyptian, the script instead became an abjad (reflecting only consonants); by the time this came to the Greeks, they added vowel letters to make the first alphabet (and all alphabets are essentially derived from the Greeks); the abugida innovation (marking vowels systematically) happened a few times, although most existing abugidas derive ultimately from the Brahmi script. Sequoyah skipped straight to a syllabary because of access to Latin script that illustrated that logographic script wasn't necessary.

[1] Mapping are of course rough in all forms of scripts, but syllabaries are usually even rougher to map, since languages can have quite complex consonant clusters. In practice, most such scripts tend to stick to classifying CV (consonant-vowel) pairs as syllables and use multiple characters to represent CVC, CCVC, CVCC, etc. syllables.

His first attempt was more similar to Chinese. He attempted to make a separate character for every word. After more than a thousand created but many, many more words remaining, he discarded it as a hopeless approach and settled on a syllabary.

It's funny but I don't remember much about it now, other than he was one of my heroes when I was young. I can't remember the age I was either - but I think it was between 8 and 10.

The only thing I do remember is having a book with the portrait by Henry Inman in it https://npg.si.edu/blog/portrait-sequoyah-henry-inman I still remember that portrait, and sitting around daydreaming that I was him.

I found his name in Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel”, I’m halfway and it’s an interesting read about how the world became to be as it is and generally interesting tidbits.

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